The last time I was in McMinnville, I forgot to look for the old three-story, red-brick Sedberry Hotel, long closed, to see if it was still standing. When I was a teenager in the years immediately following World War II, I remember my grandmother, Jessie Ely Wills, taking me to the Sedberry Hotel on a Sunday for dinner. Her chauffeur, Lemuel Wilson, drove us in a Packard on U.S.70 South from Nashville through Murfreesboro, and Woodbury to McMinnville. There we saw a lot of other cars parked close to the hotel.
When we visited the Sedberry dining room, it was run by Miss Connie Sedberry, while her sister Erbye ran the rest of the 50-room hotel. They inherited the place and its famous restaurant in 1931 when their mother died. Mrs. Sedberry, a widow, had owned the hotel and run it and the restaurant from 1914 when she bought it for it for $15,000 until her death. Mrs. Sedberry, with help from her young daughters and faithful cooks, established the restaurant’s great reputation. Initially, her clients were mostly drummers, who travelled by two-horse wagons and usually stayed for three or four weeks. Breakfast in the early days had to be served at 4:55 a.m. in the morning to enable guests to catch the Tullahoma train. Pork chops and pancakes were breakfast favorites.
For a while, the Sedberry was strategically located on the north-south route from Nashville to Chattanooga and on the east-west route from Knoxville to Memphis.Those years were the Sedberry’s haydays. Miss Connie gave special attention to what she called “the Congressional crowd.” Among the famous politicians to eat and stay at the Sedberry were the John Nance Garners, who always stayed in room 135; the Alben Barkleys of Kentucky; Huey Long, whom Miss Connie thought was the“kindest man;” Cordell Hull; and John Connally. Texas Representative Sam Rayburn spent part of his honeymoon there.
The non-political crowd was also impressive and diverse. Hedda Hopper came, as did Al Capone one Sunday before Thanksgiving. John Dillinger visited once, as did the J.Pierpoint Morgans. One day, Babe Ruth, having missed his plane in Nashville, stopped while hurrying by car to Knoxville to catch a New York train. As he ran out the front door, clutching a piece of pecan pie, he was said to have shouted over his shoulder: “I’m going to make a home run out of this.” After Duncan Hines, the culinary critic, visited, he wrote in his Adventures in Good Eating, that “Dinner at the Sedberry is a knockout.” Once, during the Middle Tennessee maneuvers in 1943, five generals were eating there at the same time.
My guess is that when we went we had a fried chicken dinner with stuffed baked squash, a fancy salad and cornsticks, followed by a piece of pecan pie for desert. We just as easily could have had a country ham dinner with homemade lemon ice cream for dessert. Miss Connie usually served six different meats on Sundays.
Better roads was the biggest factor in the decline and closure of the Sedberry. A shorter, smoother U.S. 70 North that went through Lebanon and Cookeville well north of McMinnville may have drained off enough travellers to cause Tennessee to lose perhaps its greatest small town restaurant.